Computer Arts

Urban Digital

The 1970s and 80s saw the emergence of graffiti culture and its transition into a respected art form. Designer Ric Blackshaw traces the roots of his own passion for a whole new graphic language.

At Scrawl Collective, the agency I run for illustrators and designers, we have a motto: 'Hand B4 Mouse'. However, this isn't the modern-day Luddite's axiom that it first appears to be. Much of our work is in fact digital: the motto merely reflects our belief in the superior aesthetics of the hand-drawn approach.

In the same way that musicians in the late 80s and early 90s would bemoan the lack of feel in drum patterns sequenced on Cubase, we at the Scrawl Collective rail against what one artist once eloquently described to me as "the hi-tech flashiness of digital graphics that scream out for the human touch". However, when programs such as Streamline came out, hand-drawn art could be taken into the digital realm without losing the look and feel of the original work.

All the artists at Scrawl Collective, no matter how Photoshop-literate and Illustrator-savvy they may be, begin their work with something hand-drawn or hand-rendered in some fashion.

We are by no means alone, or for that matter particularly original, in this approach to our work. I first picked up on it when researching the first Scrawl book, Scrawl: Dirty Graphics and Strange Characters. My co-author Liz Farrelly and I identified a generation of artists, designers, filmmakers, illustrators and fashion designers who, while stylistically very diverse, nonetheless had certain things in common. The sampling and remix culture of that era's music scene had crossed into the culture's visual world.

The DIY ethos of punk and hip-hop, and the visual expression of these movements, inspired a generation of young talent to 'get up', to use the vernacular of the graffiti scene, and start creating their own stuff. All the signifiers of this rich urban environment - graffiti, comic books, movies, packaging, music, fashion - went into the mix. In these early days, the rules were not yet set in stone. Although they probably didn't know it at the time, the artists and designers of this period were not only creating a new design aesthetic, but a new lifestyle to go with it: something that straddled the personal vision of the artist and the practicalities and constraints of the commercial world.

The graffiti artists of New York City who pioneered this scene in the 1980s could hardly have imagined that what they were doing would become so popular and influential. Lee Quinones was one of the pioneers of the street art scene, famously appearing in the movie Wild Style, but there's a misconception as to how easily these guys took off as artists. A few, including Quinones and Futura, were taken up by galleries quite early on, but the response of the critics was lukewarm at best.

Even today, artists perceived as more gallery-friendly and whose work sells for thousands, such as Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring, have their various merits - or the lack of them - debated in art circles. There was, and is, a lot of snobbery about graffiti. A lot of artists who got into galleries in those early days were briefly the flavour of the month, but the whole gallery machine experience left a lot of people with a nasty taste in their mouth - and left the graffiti scene in general doubly wary of outsiders with dollar signs in their eyes.

Hard graft
Lee Quinones and Futura are now both highly successful, but it hasn't been an easy ride. For instance, Futura famously got his break when The Clash asked him to do their stage backdrop, and brought him over to London. He later made a record with them. But between that early recognition and the success he enjoys today, there have been many ups and downs. In the intervening years, he had to do many things to make ends meet, including a stint as a bike messenger. His journey back to prominence began in the 1990s, when James Lavelle began buying his work and using it as the sleeve art for his fledgling record label Mo'Wax. These days, Futura is known and respected as much for his graphic design and clothing labels as he for his graffiti art.

The hardships of these first- and second- generation NYC graffiti artists were not in vain. It is they, and documenters of the scene such as Henry Chalfant, who can now take the credit for starting a movement that has spread globally, and inspired thousands of kids to pick up a spray can. Artists such as Futura pioneered the graffiti artist, designer and entrepreneur blueprint followed by so many professionals today.

In the UK, early exponents of this visual language and lifestyle, such as Swifty, quickly became synonymous with the artwork of London's bustling nightlife and music scene. From the beginning, Swifty made a strong case for graffiti's influence on this culture, where the commercial work came as much from being on the scene, making connections and being able to tap into that rich seam of inspiration as it did through the more accepted working life of a graphic designer. "Street art has finally come of age," he explains. "It's not just for the hip-hop generation now.

"As traditional graffiti has been around now for some 30-odd years, there's a heck of a lot of history. It's grown into a highly respected art form that once again is gracing gallery walls, but it's also had a profound influence on graphic designers and commercial artists like myself, who have backed the art form and helped push it into today's commercial world. Artists like Banksy here in the UK and Futura in NYC have shown us all that it's not just about getting up, but more about creating personas and brands that can be marketed, copied and idolised. This is just the beginning."

New directions
Some people may decry the urban blight of the ubiquitous tag on the streets of our cities, but it's impossible to deny the influence that graffiti has had on modern graphics - not that this should come as a surprise to anyone. The main feature of graffiti - indeed its most basic concern - is lettering. Graffiti could be described as typeface design on the hoof, and many of the early graffiti artists went on to design their own fonts in later life. Bristol's Nick Walker is just one who took the skills he learned on the street and adapted them to the world he was creating on his Mac, taking influences from dystopian science fiction as well as graffiti, and creating alien alphabets.

Some graffiti artists took their skills with letterforms in other directions. SheOne was one artist who, in the early days, took his typography beyond recognisable graffiti styles and develop them to become more abstract. These went on to inform his work as a graphic designer. "My G4 laptop is the most natural way of assembling my largescale paintings into viable product design," he says. "I start by digitally photographing paints, either in the gallery, on canvas or in illegal locations around the globe. This raw data is edited, shaken and stirred in Photoshop, and assembled into a finished product. I guess you call this design. I enjoy the instant rendering of ideas available through this method. One can travel with the laptop and camera - it's an instant interface, and allows for complete authorisation of one's own language.

"My painting can be simply applied to pretty much any brief: my current project is the SheCamo, a fabric design for the Addict clothing brand, in which painted details are used to create a repeat pattern fabric and used for high-end winter jackets, which come in a box also carrying the motifs.

Others still turned their hands to illustration, concentrating on developing the cityscapes and moody-looking characters that bookended so many graffiti pieces in the early days. Wayne Snooze grew up reading comics such as 2000AD. When he was first bitten by the graffiti bug (inspired by the seminal Judge Dredd story 'Un- American Graffiti'), he favoured the marker pen approach, but was soon creating cartoons and later nightclub projections. "It took me a long time to change over to the digital format, as I had no respect for computers," he says. "I enjoyed doing things by hand, and felt that using a Mac was cheating. Eventually I was cornered, and had to use one, and I was amazed at how helpful it was. It was just another tool, and now I find it hard not to use it."

Graffiti dreams
Not only were graffiti artists teaching themselves Photoshop and Illustrator and turning pro, but a whole generation of design students was looking at graffiti, experiencing the resurgence of skate culture, and bringing this visual language into their own work. Mr Jago, Will Barras and Steff Plaetz, the first Scrawl Collective artists, all came from this second generation. Rather than going down the graffiti path, they created freehand drawing styles that they developed over time as designers and artists. Here the line was again being blurred between the purely digital and the hand-made. A sketch may be scanned and streamlined, developed on the Mac and printed out, and end up as the basis for a painting; equally a painting may inspire a piece of graphic design. Whatever the process, it's graffiti's hand-made quality that gives their work its character. It's here that the imperfections lie, the tiny flaws that draw the human eye: the awry pencil mark, that stray drip of paint. It's what gives their work the human quality that people respond to.

Today we have the strange situation of graphic design students going out and doing graffiti. It's no longer just the kids off the estates; now nice middle-class boys are out there stickering and stencilling, with dreams of being the next Banksy. This has led some to warn that, as someone once pointed out to me on the subject of football, "Once the middle classes get into it, it's over."

The risk-taking nature of the graffiti artist's life was an ideal preparation for the life of a freelance artist and designer: it forged the entrepreneurial spirit they needed to help them survive. Those early graf heads, and the designers they initially inspired, created a new way of working, where the ability to hustle was as important as the art, and where the artist became the brand. Today we are lucky to live in a world that these pioneers created.

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